Cornering the Chameleons
Stalinism and Trotskyism in Britain 1939-411
Some of the basic research for this article was included in a dissertation for a BA Degree at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London in 1994 under the title Confronting the Unthinkable: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and part of it appeared as ‘From the Red Flag to the Union Jack’, New Interventions, Volume 6, no 2, June 1995, pp9-15. The present article is a considerably expanded treatment comparing the politics of Stalinism with those of the Trotskyists, updated to take in the material since published by supporters of the Democratic Left to explain the CPGB’s political somersaulting at the time.
Descriptions of the politics of the Trotskyists during this period are indicated in the footnotes, and so need no additional notice here, except to add Martin Upham’s The History of British Trotskyism to 1949, a thesis submitted for a PhD at the University of Hull in 1980, and our own preliminary documentation included in Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no 1, Spring 1988.
The Road to War
BY THE late 1930s it was clear to any informed observer that as far as Moscow was concerned, the Communist International had become purely an adjunct of Soviet diplomacy, and the chief task of any Communist party was to mobilise pressure upon the ruling class in that country in the interests of Soviet foreign policy, rather than to be a proletarian revolutionary organisation fighting for the seizure of state power. This was made clear by Georgi Dimitrov, a leading spokesman for the Communist International, who said in November 1937:
‘The touchstone in checking the sincerity and honesty of every individual active in the working class movement, of every working class party and organisation of the working people, and of every democrat in the capitalist countries, is their attitude toward the great land of Socialism... You cannot carry on a serious struggle against the Fascist instigators of a new world bloodbath, if you do not render undivided support to the USSR, a most important factor in the maintenance of international peace... The historical dividing line between the forces of Fascism, war and capitalism, on the one hand, and the forces of peace, democracy and Socialism on the other hand, is in fact becoming the attitude toward the Soviet Union, and not the formal attitude toward soviet power and Socialism in general, but the attitude to the Soviet Union...’2
The appeal to ‘every democrat’, and the shift of the ‘historical dividing line’ away from the concept of soviet power and Socialism — proletarian revolution — to the ‘attitude toward the Soviet Union’ — the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy — confirmed that the Soviet bureaucracy was aiming to use the parties of the Communist International in all the countries where they had any presence, to bring together anyone from any class who, for whatever reason, favoured an alliance between the democratic capitalist powers and the Soviet Union, in order to forestall any aggression from Nazi Germany, which the Soviet Union considered at this juncture as the main source of danger. Class struggle was not ruled out if it could serve as a means of pressurising western bourgeoisies into concluding alliances with the Soviet Union. What was not tolerated by the Soviet bureaucracy, and what was not conducted by the parties of the Communist International, was class struggle which opened the way towards a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.
The call for an all-class alliance was explicit at the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1938. In his political report, General Secretary Harry Pollitt noted the ‘growing disillusionment inside the Tory and Liberal Parties’ and the ‘uneasiness’ felt by many Catholics and Protestants, and declared: ‘It is politically very short-sighted not to recognise these developments and to ignore the importance of bringing all these sections of the people and their organisations into cooperation with the labour movement.’3 Obviously, such bastions of capitalism as the Conservative and Liberal Parties and the big churches could only be attracted on a patriotic, pro-capitalist basis. Pollitt condemned Neville Chamberlain’s National Government for ‘betraying the interests of the British people, surrendering strategic positions to the Fascist states, and lowering Britain’s prestige in the eyes of the peoples of the world’.4 The Stalinists promoted the removal of the National Government as a nationalist crusade: ‘To that end every Englishman, who loves his country, who is proud of and anxious to preserve the democratic traditions of the British people, can, without any distinction of party or creed, work. Indeed it is a patriotic duty to do so.’5
This approach, with its consequential adaptation to the pro-war, anti-German elements of the British ruling class — by March 1939 Pollitt was publicly calling for an ‘anti-appeasement’ government including Winston Churchill6 — necessarily precluded an independent working class orientation towards imperialist war. In March 1938 Johnny Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, asked rhetorically: ‘Is “defeatism” still the best policy for the workers in a capitalist country associated with the Soviet Union in a war?’ ‘Obviously not’, he replied, as this would help the Fascist powers attack the Soviet Union, and overthrow parliamentary democracy elsewhere. Therefore: ‘The workers in a capitalist country associated with the Soviet Union are interested in victory, and must do everything to further it.’7 He condemned those on the left who saw the coming war as an imperialist conflict as carrying out ‘a whitewashing of Fascism useful only to Hitler and his hypocritical accomplices in this country’.8
The Trotskyists in Britain were well aware of the dangers which the Popular Front posed for the working class. As Marxists they realised that war was inseparable from capitalism, and that the fight against war was simultaneously and necessarily a struggle against capitalism. But, because it aimed to attract bourgeois support, the Popular Front could not oppose capitalism, and, however much its proponents talked of peace, it was unable to oppose the drift towards war. It would, in fact, do the very opposite, as a pamphlet issued by the Militant Labour League succinctly pointed out:
‘The real object of the Popular Front or Peace Alliance is not to preserve peace, but to make it easier for capitalism to go to war. The only real obstacle to the war plans of imperialism is the organised might of the working class; the Popular Front not only removes this obstacle, but actually seeks to mobilise the workers behind their own capitalist class in time of war. In order to do so, they use the same slogans which were worn threadbare during 1914-18 — the “defence of democracy”, “the protection of small nations”, together with a few new ones equally meaningless, “collective security”, and similar twaddle.’9
This was a prescient statement, as it soon became clear that the British ruling class was obliged to employ the anti-Fascist language of the Popular Front in order to mobilise support for the Second World War.10 The Marxist Group’s paper, Fight, noted the consequences of the Stalinists’ policies for the working class:
‘Before an imperialist nation can embark upon war, it must have a docile, confused and ideologically degenerate working class. The class needs of the worker must be completely sacrificed to the class needs of the bourgeoisie, hence the class struggle must be thrown overboard. The CP cannot under any circumstances call for or take part in any action that leads to the intensification of the class war and the consequent weakening of the Soviet Union’s “allies”.’11
The MLL recognised that the emphasis laid in Soviet foreign policy upon concluding alliances with imperialist powers would have important consequences for Communist parties, and warned: ‘This policy means in effect that the Communist Party will not oppose a capitalist government which, for reasons of its own, chooses to ally itself temporarily with the Soviet Union.’ Britain’s Stalinists only opposed Chamberlain because he would not consider forging an alliance with the Soviet Union, but: ‘Were he to change his mind, the Communist Party agitation would cease immediately.’12
Under the guise of the Peace Front, the anticipated alliance of the bourgeois democracies and the Soviet Union, the parties of the Communist International were preparing the world’s workers for war, and when hostilities erupted in September 1939, it came as no surprise that the Communist Party considered the conflagration ‘to be a just war which should be supported by the whole working class and all friends of democracy in Britain’.13
Continuity in Change
Although the main thrust of the propaganda of the Soviet government, and thus of that of the parties of the Communist International, was for the formation of an anti-German alliance between the Soviet Union and the democratic imperialist powers, the Soviet bureaucracy had not ruled out the alternative of an agreement with Nazi Germany itself. Ambiguities in Soviet and Comintern phrases were seized upon by the Trotskyists to show that Soviet diplomacy was not based on any high principle, but upon the desire of the Soviet bureaucracy to defend itself through diplomatic horse-trading.
Stalin’s address to the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 10 March 1939 discounted any idea of German designs on the Soviet Union. He noted that ‘the majority of the non-aggressive countries, particularly England and France’, had ‘rejected the policy of collective security’, yet he made no call for a Soviet alliance with them, and only vaguely stated that he would support nations which were ‘victims of aggression’. Whilst admitting that the ‘non-aggressive states’ were ‘making concession after concession to the aggressors’, he declared that the Soviet Union was continuing its ‘policy of peace and of strengthening business relations with all countries’, and intended: ‘To be cautious and not allow our country to be drawn into conflicts by warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them.’14 This was intended to warn the democratic imperialist powers that they could not necessarily rely upon the automatic support of the Soviet Union in any future European war. Stalin was publicly making the none-too-subtle implication that he could well conclude some form of deal with Germany.
The Workers International League considered that Soviet foreign policy was shifting, and saw this as a consequence of the uncertainties that had arisen after the Munich debâcle and the collapse of Czechoslovakia. Its journal concluded: ‘Stalin’s speech of last month further emphasises the uncertainty of Soviet foreign policy and his readiness to strike a bargain with Hitler.’15
The collective security quest came to nought as the pact with Czechoslovakia was nullified by that country’s collapse, the pact with France had become a dead letter, and nothing whatsoever had been concluded with Britain. The Soviet government signed on 23 August 1939 a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, something which the British Stalinists had only just considered as unthinkable.16
The Soviet Union was now allied with the main target of the Stalinists’ propaganda of the previous five years. The demand for an Anglo-French-Soviet Peace Front against Nazi aggression had been rendered obsolete, although this had not dawned on the Communist parties. The British party declared that the Soviet Union remained ‘the steadfast friend of peace and democracy’, and were Chamberlain removed, ‘no further obstacle would remain to the completion of a genuine pact in which the people of Britain and France would be linked together with the Soviet Union for the checking of aggression and the maintenance of peace’.17
Seemingly unaware that the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact prevented the formation of an alliance between Britain and France and the Soviet Union, the Stalinists not merely continued to call for such a pact, they also pledged their support for a war against Germany should one break out. The British Young Communist League printed the text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (‘a new blow for peace’) in its magazine, including the clause which stated that neither of the contracting parties would ‘participate in any grouping of powers’ which was ‘either directly or indirectly aimed against the other contracting party’, yet declared in the same issue that it would support a war against the Fascist powers.18 If the contradiction was lost on them, the Trotskyists were under no illusions. The Militant also quoted the offending clause, but added sarcastically: ‘So much for the reiterated demand of the Daily Worker for a British-Soviet Pact!’19
Although the fulsome support of the Communist parties for the war against Germany contradicted the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in both spirit and letter, the Communist International continued to promote a pro-war line. Stalin noticed the incongruity, and on 7 September he called in Dimitrov to discuss the character of the war and what the Communist International should do. Dimitrov drew up some theses, which were approved by the Secretariat of the Communist International on 9 September. These stated that the war was imperialist and unjust, and could not be supported by the working class. Communist parties had to oppose the war, and to vote against war credits. On 14 September Pollitt received a telegram to this effect, which he hid as it went against both existing party policy and his own outlook. The party’s Vice-Chairman, Rajani Palme Dutt, ever sensitive to changes in the Moscow line, suggested at a Political Bureau meeting on the next day that the party’s attitude to the war be re-examined. Pollitt disavowed the new line, and presented to the party’s Central Committee his suggestions for a wartime Popular Front government.20
When the Central Committee met on 24 September to discuss the new orientation, the majority of its members maintained their support for the existing line, and Dutt found himself utterly isolated. Dave Springhall returned from Moscow that evening confirming the new orientation, and the meeting was adjourned until 2 October. Dutt, always to the fore when drastic policy changes were in the offing, took the lead in the resumed Central Committee meeting in promoting the anti-war line, but it took all of his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion to win his colleagues across, as at first only he, Springhall and Bill Rust supported it. 21
Pollitt, Campbell and the party’s sole member of parliament, Willie Gallacher, stuck to their guns and voted against the new line, although for some reason Pollitt then asked for Gallacher’s ‘no’ vote to be recorded as a ‘yes’. Stripped of their positions as General Secretary and Daily Worker editor, Pollitt and Campbell wrote (or signed) grovelling and disingenuous self-confessions, accepting the new line publicly, if not privately.22 That this episode had occurred, and that two high-ranking officials could have voted against a directive of the Communist International, shows how deeply social patriotic sentiments had developed within the leadership of the Communist Party.
The social patriotic tendencies of the Communist parties had originated in their transformation into increasingly pliant tools of Soviet diplomacy, and had rapidly gained a domestic base as the parties started to adapt to their own nation states. As Trotsky pointed out, they were not merely sections of the Communist International, they were national parties as well, and their recent growth, ‘their infiltration into the ranks of the petit-bourgeoisie, their installation in the state machinery, the trade unions, parliaments, municipalities, etc’, had ‘strengthened in the extreme their dependence on national imperialism at the expense of their traditional dependence on the Kremlin’.23
It was during the late 1930s that many Communist parties, not least the British, started to experience numerical growth and increasing influence — and not merely within the working class. Their pandering to patriotic sentiments, their actual support for anti-German elements within the ruling class, and their discovery that the imperialist state could play a progressive rôle, led to tendencies arising that caused problems once their new-found patriotism came into conflict with their allegiance to the Soviet bureaucracy.
The New Line in Practice
A manifesto outlining the new orientation soon appeared in the Stalinist press. Some of it resembled those very phrases which but recently had been branded as ‘a whitewashing of Fascism’: ‘The responsibility for the present imperialist war lies equally on all the warring powers. This war is a fight between imperialist powers over profits, colonies and world domination.’24 Dutt codified the new approach in a pamphlet which appeared in November 1939. Whatever references there were to the imperialist nature of the war, it clearly showed that the dramatic policy shift of the Communist International was in no sense a return to Leninism. Stalin did not want a revolution in Europe, he wanted stability and the opportunity to stay out of the war. The new line signified a tactical change in the exertion of pressure upon the European bourgeoisies, and the task set for the British Communist Party was to force its bourgeoisie to accept the status quo that had been established by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Dutt demanded: ‘The government must be compelled to make peace. We demand an immediate armistice and the calling of a peace conference... We call for a united movement of the people to bring down the Chamberlain government, to compel new elections and to prepare the establishment of a new government which shall make immediate peace...’25 This is electoralism and pacifism — a far cry indeed from Leninism.
The WIL rapidly saw through the Stalinists’ radical rhetoric:
‘On the surface the revival of the old slogans... may seem like a return to the policies of 1917. But Lenin... saw the only road to peace in the overthrow of the imperialists. The “Communists” of today, while they attach the label “imperialist” to the present war, find the road to peace in negotiations between rival bandits, in other words, in an imperialist compromise which leaves the cause of future wars intact. Their attitude is not Bolshevik but pacifist.’26
The Trotskyists had long understood that the policies of the Communist International flowed directly from the foreign policy objectives of the Kremlin, and that the Stalinist line of the moment would thus be strictly conditional. The WIL stated: ‘The Communist Party represent nothing but the narrow interests of the Kremlin. Yesterday they supported the war. Today they are calling for an imperialist “peace”... Tomorrow, if Stalin makes a pact with Chamberlain, they will again support the war.’27 Moreover, against the pathetic trust that the Communist Party placed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to defend the Soviet Union,28 the Trotskyists emphasised that the pact would be unable to avert conflict between imperialism and the Soviet Union, nor could peace be guaranteed by such diplomatic manoeuvres:
‘They [imperialists] will only conclude a temporary agreement with the USSR if it happens for the moment to be in their interests. But every capitalist power is always prepared to turn upon its Soviet ally. All the more necessary for the Soviet Union to make it clear to the workers of the world that such pacts are only temporary expedients on which no reliance can be placed; all the more necessary for the workers to maintain their unflinching hostility to the capitalist governments and their war plans. The maintenance of peace could not be left to flimsy pacts in the hands of bandit imperialists. Only the working class of the world in struggle against capitalism could preserve peace and defend the USSR against aggression.’29
Above all, the Trotskyist groups emphasised the need to assert the independence of the working class, and insisted that only the working class, through the struggle for Socialism, could bring about a genuine and lasting peace, and they continually restated basic Marxist principles which cut deeply into the confused and eclectic jumble of pacifism, electoralism and reliance upon diplomatic manoeuvres which the Stalinists proposed as the solution during this period.
A somewhat sinister aspect of the Communist Party’s propaganda during the first six months or so of the war was the manner in which it often exonerated Germany from its responsibility for the imperialist conflict, thereby negating the party’s correct statements that both sides in the war were equally to blame for it. Dutt referred to British imperialism as ‘the principal leader and most aggressive force of world reaction’. If, he added, the Soviet peace deal was rejected, this would show that the responsibility for the continuing of the war lay with Britain and France, or, more precisely, as France was not ‘a free agent’, with the British ruling class.30 Pro-German sentiments were taken to an extreme in a Daily Worker editorial in February 1940:
‘Hitler repeated once again his claim that the war was thrust upon him by Britain. Against this historical fact there is no reply. Britain declared war, not Germany. Attempts were made to end the war, but the Soviet-German peace overtures were rejected by Britain. All through these months the British and French governments have had the power to end the war. They have chosen to extend it.’31
The Revolutionary Workers League gave this editorial a severe drubbing, showing that they knew exactly what sort of ‘peace offer’ Stalin — and Hitler — were promoting. The Stalinists’ claim to be fighting a revolutionary struggle for workers’ power was now exposed: ‘The Soviet-German peace proposals are nothing other than the proposals of Hitler Germany for the hegemony of Europe.’32 Starkey Jackson of the MLL said that there was no Soviet peace offer, only Hitler’s demands for ‘the recognition of the status quo in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and the consideration of Germany’s colonial claims’: ‘These are the “peace” terms that are being supported by the Soviet government and the Communist parties.’33
The Stalinists’ whitewashing of German imperialism was a direct result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If that bastion of peace, the Soviet Union, was allied by virtue of a non-aggression pact with Germany, then, according to Stalinist logic, Germany’s rôle in the world was similarly beneficent and peaceful. This is, of course, as far as the Stalinists could go, because, whilst they were to heap fulsome praise upon Stalin’s post-June 1941 allies, an overt pro-German orientation during the anti-war period would have resulted in political suicide.34
The Finnish Winter War
Within three months of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Trotskyists were confronted with the bizarre affair of the Finnish Winter War, in which the Soviet Union and the official Communist movement were subjected to a campaign of vilification by the ruling class and the labour bureaucracy, which in many ways foreshadowed the hysteria of the Cold War a few years later.
The Soviet government had, as part of the construction of a buffer zone on its western borders, attempted to exchange with the Finnish government an area of Soviet Karelia for some Finnish territory near Leningrad. Faced with a Finnish refusal, Soviet troops invaded Finnish territory on 29 November 1939 after a ‘border incident’ three days before. The invasion provoked an international storm of protest. The Labour Party and TUC leaders moved on this issue with uncharacteristic speed and vigour, and, in language soon to become familiar in the Cold War, called upon ‘the free nations of the world to give every practicable aid to the Finnish nation in its struggle to preserve its own institutions of civilisation and democracy’.35 TUC General Secretary Sir Walter Citrine and Labour MP Philip Noel-Baker toured Finland, and the labour leaders hawked the ‘Help Finland’s Fight for Freedom’ campaign around union and Labour Party branches as Chamberlain’s government sent aeroplanes, arms, ammunition and equipment to Finland.
The Trotskyists responded by condemning the Soviet invasion and outlining the danger in which such actions placed the Soviet Union, whilst demonstrating the need to defend the Soviet Union from imperialist countries and their client states. A WIL flyer stated: ‘By his actions Stalin has alienated the support of the toilers of the whole world. He makes it possible for the Finnish capitalists to pose as the defenders of freedom and to rally the Finnish masses behind their reactionary aims.’36 The MLL recognised that Stalin’s actions were ‘weakening the international position of the Soviet Union’, losing the sympathy of workers, and increasing the possibility of imperialist intervention.37
The Trotskyists ridiculed both the Stalinists’ claims of a democratic mission and Otto Kuusinen’s Finnish People’s Republic that appeared in the invaded territory. The WIL tore into the Finnophiliacs in the labour movement leadership:
‘For the [labour movement] leaders to advocate workers’ participation in a war between two capitalist powers is treason enough: for them to encourage the workers to assist an alliance of capitalist powers against the Soviet Union, the first workers’ state in history, is to have signed and sealed their desertion to the ranks of the capitalists. The workers must speak against this in the same firm voice that frightened Churchill and the British bourgeoisie 20 years ago. Not a man, not a gun, not a penny for the Finnish capitalists.’38
The Trotskyists generally shared the apprehensions of the Stalinists that the British and French ruling classes were attempting to ‘switch’ their war with Germany into a general anti-Soviet crusade. Considering that at this time, the ‘Phoney War’, the conflict between France and Britain and Germany appeared subdued, and many European governments, including the French, British and Italian, were supplying the Finnish forces, such fears were well justified.39
Desperately Seeking Collapse
The precise effects of the drastic policy shift over the war upon the Communist Party remain to some degree unclear. We know what happened in the party leadership. There were some elements within the party who considered that the war was imperialist prior to the Central Committee’s decision to that effect.40 The standard history of the party estimates that its membership had dropped to less than 10 000 after the anti-war turn.41 The official party history states that a few members left over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the anti-war turn and the Finnish Winter War, but many more people joined the party during that time, and a party pamphlet is quoted to the effect that membership had risen from 18 000 in August 1939 to nearly 20 000 in March 1940.42 Kevin Morgan’s study of the party during this period concludes that political disillusionment and wartime dislocation led to ‘an appreciable fall’ in the party’s paid-up membership, but that the bulk of the party’s active membership stayed loyal to it, as did the vast majority of its leading figures.43
The Trotskyist movement in Britain was at first convinced that the Communist Party was on its last legs. A pamphlet issued by the WIL considered: ‘It is already possible to see in the British Communist Party the first fissures. The outraged patriots are demanding an explanation. The hired hacks try to laugh it off. The handful of militant workers left in the party look on bewildered. Before long the party will be in pieces.’44 The WIL also considered that the party had split into ‘a majority of social patriots supporting the war and a minority of pacifists’ who enjoyed the support of Moscow, and that the former would find themselves ousted unless Stalin embarked upon ‘another dizzying turn’.45 Moreover, claiming that the Communist Party had grown five-fold on the basis of jingoism, the WIL ventured: ‘That part of the membership which took the anti-Fascist demagogy of the past period seriously, that is the majority of the working class members and the sincere middle class elements, will find it impossible to reconcile themselves to the new turn, the new partners and the new ideology.’46 The RWL, in an internal bulletin, reckoned on a rightward-moving split in the Communist Party:
‘Pollitt (whose suppressed collected works are being issued by Secker and Warburg next month), JR Campbell (it is rumoured); Strachey, the Left Book Club section, the Jewish anti-Hitler but non-Marxist element, the job hunters and left wing authors of Bloomsbury, who used to say their prayers twice a day by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, are now attacking King Street.’47
Facts were mixed with fantasy, and over-optimism ran riot. The Left Book Club did disintegrate as its proprietor Victor Gollancz, Labour Party theoretician Harold Laski, and erstwhile Stalinist John Strachey baulked at the anti-war line. The patriotic fellow travellers and the anti-Nazi Jewish elements fell away in disbelief and horror. Pollitt and Campbell had had the audacity to vote against a Comintern directive. But the WIL was wrong to believe that the Communist Party had grown five-fold on the basis of social patriotism, or that the majority of its members would be purged as they supported the war. Whatever its overall rightward drift in the late 1930s, the party had recruited many workers through its involvement in many militant trade union battles and fights against the Fascists. Nor did the majority of the party refuse to support the anti-war turn. The Communist Party was not going to collapse.48
Later appraisals were less sanguine. Within a few months the RWL bemoaned the ‘unpleasant fact’ that the Stalinists were ‘getting away with it’, noted that the Daily Worker was ‘increasing its circulation’, and considered that the Communist Party would ‘probably continue to grow as a “revolutionary anti-war Party”’.49 One year later Jock Haston, a leading member of the WIL, stated, albeit privately:
‘The reports from all Labour constituencies show that the Stalinists are making headway among the advanced sections of the Labour Party membership... In their hostility to the attacks the bourgeoisie is levelling against them, the advanced workers are becoming more and more antagonistic to the war. The Stalinists, masquerading under the banner of the October Revolution, appear to them to be the only alternative... The Stalinists are being labelled “Leninist defeatists” and are basking in the reflected glory of the Leninist policy.’50
Old Dogs and New Tricks
The anti-Trotskyist thrust of the official Communist movement during its anti-war period was considerably muted, compared to the late 1930s, and once it had turned to support the war after June 1941. There were some of the usual distortions. An anonymous contributor lumped together ‘the Greenwoods, the Blums, the pundits of the Daily Herald (not to mention the Trotskyist and other lesser rabble)’ who desired ‘the transformation of war against Hitler into war against the USSR’.51
Apart from a particularly malicious obituary of Trotsky following his assassination in August 1940, which dragged out most of the familiar slanders against him,52 much of the abuse was limited to retrospective references in Soviet anniversary articles reproduced in the Communist Party’s publications.53 Peter Kerrigan repeated the usual stunning refutations of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution when reviewing Stalin’s Leninism, whilst Reg Bishop disinterred the old canard that Rudolf Hess had visited Trotsky when he was in exile in Norway.54 A review of Paul Frölich’s Rosa Luxemburg described the author as a ‘shallow-minded Trotskyist’ desecrating her memory ‘in order to trot [!] out the stale old Trotskyist slanders about the “degeneration of the Soviet power”, the “extermination of the Old Guard”, etc’.55
Historical curios apart, the maniacal, obsessive preoccupation with Trotsky and Trotskyism died down considerably after September 1939; the Stalinists directed most of their fire during this period to the right. On the ground, the attitude of the Stalinists towards Trotskyists and other left wingers abated somewhat in some places, whilst in others relations remained tense.56
The activities of the Communist Party occasionally caused the Trotskyist groups to adopt differing analyses and sometimes opposing tactics. Not only did the Communist Party during this period stand candidates in by-elections under its own banner, it promoted certain of its supporters in the Labour Party as ‘anti-war’ candidates. These were widely touted in the Daily Worker, sometimes to the level of overkill, especially in the case of the Southwark Central by-election in February 1940, in which the Communist Party gave its fulsome support to Councillor Charles Searson. The Stalinists encouraged members of the Labour Party to support these candidates, even if the official candidate under the terms of the wartime political truce whom they were opposing was drawn from the Labour Party. This was courting disciplinary measures, which is probably what the Stalinists were desiring.
The MLL refused to give the Communist Party-sponsored candidates any support: ‘Labour Party members must realise that they will get nowhere by giving support to these anti-Labour Party “Stop the War” candidates who are stooges of the Communist Party.’57 The MLL warned that the Labour Party leaders would expel anybody who openly gave support to such candidates, and as those who were expelled would probably either drop out of political activity or join the Communist Party, the task of activists was to stay inside the Labour Party and fight the bureaucracy.
The WIL recognised that these candidates stood ‘on almost the same platform and with the full support of the Communist Party’. However, it considered that it was ‘impossible to support an official Labour candidate’ so long as the wartime political truce continued. Moreover: ‘... it is necessary to give critical support to all “anti-war” candidates, not only in those cases where Labour stands down and allows the Conservatives to get in unopposed, but also, as long as the political truce lasts, against the official Labour candidate.’58
The opposing tactics were a result of the differing orientations of the two organisations towards the Labour Party. Whilst the WIL and the MLL (and the latter’s parent group, the Revolutionary Socialist League) broadly agreed upon the necessity to call for a Labour government and for the end of the political truce, the MLL concentrated almost exclusively upon work within the Labour Party, and saw no reason in giving the party bureaucracy any cause for initiating disciplinary measures against it (not that this prevented the MLL from being proscribed at the 1940 Labour Party conference).59 The WIL did not confine itself to work within the Labour Party, and considered that critical support for anti-war candidates, be they members of the Communist Party or the Independent Labour Party, Stalinists within the Labour Party, or straightforward pacifists, gave the opportunity to present revolutionary politics to the working class.
The Strange Interlude of the June Manifesto
Differing tactical conceptions also led to divergent analyses of the Stalinists’ twists and turns. This was particularly noticeable over the Communist Party’s manifesto of June 1940. Issued just after the fall of France, it was unlike anything else that the party produced during its anti-war period. Noting that ‘the same kind of leaders who brought France to defeat are in high places in Britain’, it demanded:
‘Clear out all supporters of Fascism, the men of Munich, and all responsible for the present situation from all commanding positions, whether in the government, the services, or the control of industry.
‘Conscript wealth and nationalise the key industries, banks, transport and mines. Establish real equality of distribution of food supply.
‘Secure the election of workers’ control committees in the factories to safeguard the workers’ conditions and put an end to corruption, waste and profiteering in the production of armaments and all necessities of life.
‘Arm the workers in the factories.
‘Provide increased pay for the men in the armed forces, adequate allowances and pensions for their dependants. Break down the class system in the appointment of officers.
- ‘Provide adequate air raid precautions and evacuation schemes.
- ‘Withdraw all regulations that take away the right of free speech, press, meeting and organisation of the working class movement.
- ‘Cancel the partition of Ireland, give full freedom to the Indian people and to all the peoples in the British Empire.
- ‘Build up unity and close fraternal relations with the Socialist Soviet Union and with the working people of all countries, for freedom and peace.’60
Such a programme was deemed necessary to ‘guarantee the defeat both of the Nazi menace and of the danger... from the British representatives of Fascism’.61 The manifesto was widely and prominently promoted in the party press, lengthy expositions upon each point of it appeared on a daily basis in the Daily Worker, and an abridged version appeared as a flyer, the distribution of which led to many cases of police harassment and arrests. Then, after nearly two weeks of high level publicity, the manifesto vanished from sight.
The WIL saw the adoption of the June manifesto as a direct result of the relationship between the Communist Party and the Soviet bureaucracy, indeed it ‘revealed a more open and obvious link with Moscow than almost any of the previous “lines”’.62 The WIL argued that the chronic defeats suffered by the Allies in the spring of 1940 had worried both the Soviet bureaucracy and the British ruling class. The former did not want to face one victorious imperialist power in Europe, and the latter now sought an ally in the Soviet Union. Sir Stafford Cripps initiated negotiations in Moscow: ‘In all probability Stalin laid down conditions for helping Britain which went beyond the price the British government was willing to pay. The old weapon of threats was therefore resorted to and a violently anti-British campaign ensued.’63 The Communist Party’s new line coincided with the fall of France, Stalin’s hand was strengthened, and Britain ‘agreed to Stalin’s terms’. Shortly after Cripps’ audience with Stalin, ‘the Daily Worker received the order to stop printing the Nine Point Programme’.64 It had served its purpose.
The RSL also investigated the June manifesto, but stayed on a more prosaic level:
‘It has now once again reverted to defencism and refurbished its Popular Front slogans for this purpose (“A government the people can trust”, “Arm the people”, etc). One factor in this new change of front is the unwillingness of the Stalin bureaucracy to see a complete German victory. The pressure of chauvinism on the leadership of the CPGB is also causing them to effect a cautious transference of their allegiance to British imperialism.’65
The June manifesto was very close in content to a declaration that was issued by the French Communist Party after close consultation with Moscow, and published in the Daily Worker on 21 June, and so it could be said to have been inspired by Moscow, albeit not in the manner that the WIL thought.66 Stalin was worried about the German military successes, as he did not expect France to fall so dramatically.
The June manifesto was a most uncharacteristic document, not least because it was the only example of the Stalinists promoting a series of transitional demands, starting at the current concerns of the working class — the threat of foreign Fascism and internal reaction — and posing demands that would enable workers’ spontaneous anti-Fascism to be transformed into a revolutionary challenge to the ruling class. Why it was peremptorily withdrawn remains a mystery, as it proved very popular, and caused the ruling class considerable concern. As the panic that had hit Moscow died down, and the Soviet bureaucracy reaffirmed the alliance with Germany, it is possible that instructions were received from Moscow to withdraw it. Did the fact that the manifesto actually promoted some kind of transitional demands — something long absent in Comintern propaganda — disturb the Soviet bureaucracy, which wanted to maintain the status quo in Europe, not overthrow it? Anyway, however popular the new line had proven, it soon disappeared, the party leadership warned about ‘defencist tendencies’ emerging in and around the party,67 and the old line of an abstract denunciation of the war was resumed, albeit without the previous pro-German sentiments.68
The Stalinists may also have been worried that the similarities between the manifesto and the Proletarian Military Policy, a strategy of the Fourth International which the WIL was promoting, could have led some of the party’s members and supporters in that unwelcome direction.
These similarities may have caused problems for the WIL. Whilst it was analysing the June manifesto, it was saying that the only way to defend the towns and cities was for ‘the workers to be armed in militias under the control of democratically elected factory and street committees’.69 If the WIL was calling for the arming of the workers as a revolutionary demand, it may, perhaps, have found it difficult to criticise the similar demands of the Communist Party as a concession to defencism.70
The Communist Party was undoubtedly affected by the fall of France and the concern about a German invasion of Britain, although its allegiance to the Soviet Union, its leftist orientation and the existence of the Channel prevented it from lurching into open defencism. But the RSL was wrong to assume that the June manifesto was a ‘new change of front’. Outright defencist tendencies do not appear to have arisen within the Communist Party until April or May 1941, and then not in public.71 The RSL considered the June manifesto to be a reversion to defencism because it considered that anybody who demanded the arming of the workers at this juncture was pandering ‘to the defencist illusions of the masses’.72 This was not merely a criticism of the Communist Party’s manifesto, but also of the WIL and, indeed, the Fourth International, of which the RSL, ironically, was the official section.
The People’s Convention: The Popular Front Revisited
In mid-1940 the Communist Party intensified its campaign for a ‘People’s Government’. Although initiated by the party, the campaign made heavy use of the party’s sympathisers in and around the Labour Party, presumably to give some impression of independence. DN Pritt, a budding British Vyshinsky and the MP for Hammersmith North, who had used his legal training to present an abject apology for the Moscow Trials, and had recently been drummed out of the Labour Party, and Harry Adams, a building workers’ union official, along with the recently disaffiliated Hammersmith Borough Trades Council and Labour Party, sponsored a conference which was held on 7 July 1940. It called for the defence of trade union and democratic rights, friendship with the Soviet Union, a people’s government and a people’s peace.73
No doubt pleased with the success of this pilot conference, the Communist Party set about building the movement on a national scale. The Central Committee’s resolution calling for ‘all agitation and organisation... to be directed towards the central aim of rallying the widest forces for representation at the People’s Convention’ to be held on 12 January 1941, was a typical mish-mash of garbled Marxist truisms, outright populism and silly ultra-left scare mongering. Convinced that the Labour Party leaders were seeking ‘to draw the labour organisations into a type of Labour Front’ leading ‘to Fascism, to the same type of regime as the Nazi regime in Germany’, we could also read that: ‘... the Communist Party launches its campaign for a People’s Government and a People’s Peace, to arouse and unite all sections of the people in the struggle for their immediate needs, against the government and for a new government of the working people.’74 Whilst party propaganda for the People’s Convention did make references to the imperialist nature of the war and the need for Socialism, such statements were conspicuously absent from the appeal circulated under the name of the People’s Convention, phrased as it was in classic Popular Front tones. The appeal was signed by a wide range of Stalinists and fellow travellers: prominent Communist Party members (Dutt, Pollitt, Gallacher, Rust), union bureaucrats in the party (Arthur Horner, Joe Scott, Bert Papworth, Walter Stevens) or around it (JE Skilbeck, Harry Adams, WJR Squance), Stalinist-inspired ‘anti-war’ parliamentary candidates (William Ross, Charles Searson), the trusty apologists (DN Pritt, Hewlett Johnson (the Red Dean of Canterbury), Commander Edgar Young), and the usual array of actresses, bandleaders and clerics.75
The Convention was mobilised around the following six demands:
- ‘Defence of the people’s living standards.
- ‘Defence of the people’s democratic and trade union rights.
- ‘Adequate air raid precautions, deep bomb-proof shelters, rehousing and relief of victims.
- ‘Friendship with the Soviet Union.
- ‘A People’s Government, truly representative of the whole people and able to inspire the confidence of the working people of the world.
- ‘A people’s peace that gets rid of the causes of war.’76
- The People’s Convention took place in London on the arranged date. It attracted 2234 delegates from 1304 organisations, reputedly representing 1.2 million people; 1136 of the delegates were from trade union bodies, reputedly representing one million people. The Convention voted to accept a modified eight-point programme:
- ‘To raise the living standards of the people, including wages, pay of armed and civil defence forces, dependants’ allowances, all pensions, compensation, insurance and unemployment allowances, and the restoration and extension of educational facilities.
- ‘Adequate ARP bomb-proof shelters, and prompt and effective provision for all the needs of air raid victims, including rehousing and full and immediate compensation.
- ‘Restoration, safeguarding and extension of all trade union rights and democratic rights and civil liberties. Effective democratic rights for members of the armed forces.
- ‘Emergency powers to be used to take over the banks, land, transport, armaments and other large industries in order to organise our economic life in the interests of the people.
- ‘National independence for India, the right of all colonial peoples to determine their own destiny, and the ending of the enforced partition of Ireland.
- ‘Friendship with the USSR.
- ‘A People’s Government truly representative of the working people, and able to command the confidence of working people throughout the world.
- ‘A People’s Peace, won by the working people of all countries, and based on the right of all peoples to determine their own destiny.’77
The Trotskyists subjected the programme of the People’s Convention to a vigorous critique. The WIL attacked the original six-point programme. There was no mention of the ‘necessity for stern and bitter class struggles’ as ‘the indispensable and only means’ of fighting for the ‘laudable objects’ outlined in the first three points, which were ‘merely bait’ to draw discontented workers behind the Communist Party’s programme.78
As for a ‘People’s Government’ and a ‘People’s Peace’, nowhere were the nature and the class composition of the former analysed, it would ‘mean different things at different times for different purposes’. The latter was ‘very nice and very vague and ambiguous’. The Stalinists did occasionally talk about imperialist wars and the necessity to overthrow capitalism to bring about a genuine peace, but the fact that this required ‘civil war and the seizure of power by the workers’ was very rarely and only casually implied, and no consistent exposition upon the ‘elementary axioms of Leninism’ was provided.79 The key to the whole issue was the fourth point — friendship with the Soviet Union, a meaningless phrase as there could never be friendship between capitalism and the Soviet Union:
‘Moreover, “friendship”, the word chosen, is in itself an indication of the ideology of those who put it forward. For the defence of the conquests of the October Revolution, and “friendship” with the Soviet bureaucracy (which is what they mean) are two entirely different things. The Kremlin and its agency, the Communist Party, through whom it acts in the working class movement, conceive that movement as a pawn to be used in the interests of Soviet diplomacy. For the influence it might gain would be a bartering counter in the deals between Stalin and British imperialism and its rivals.’80
The purpose of the People’s Convention was thus to mobilise the working class in order that it could act as a pressure group upon the ruling class to force it to accept the current orientation of Soviet foreign policy.
It is clear that the Soviet bureaucracy was encouraging Communist parties to direct the discontent felt amongst the working class into an anti-war direction, because it still considered that a peaceful solution could be found to the imperialist conflict. Compared to the Popular Front period, during which the Stalinists carefully phrased much of their propaganda to make it acceptable in middle and ruling class circles, their propaganda during the anti-war period had a harder, more militant approach, which was aimed at the working class. The Stalinists recognised that the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill in May 1940 confirmed that the British bourgeoisie was serious about taking on its rival. Nevertheless, the deliberately classless terminology of the People’s Convention showed that the Stalinists had not by any means ruled out the possibility of gaining influence within the middle and ruling classes. The essence of Stalinist politics remained the same as it was during the Popular Front period.
Through its influence in the Southall branch of the National Union of Railwaymen, the WIL attempted to modify the programme of the People’s Convention. The following additions or amendments to the first, seventh and eighth points of the final draft were submitted:
‘The arming of the working class under the control of the trade unions and workers’ committees... The immediate ending of the party truce with the insistence on a campaign for Labour to take full power on the basis of this programme as the first step to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the seizure of power by the working class. A Socialist appeal to the German and European workers for the overthrow of their own capitalist class simultaneously with the struggle against British capitalism and the establishment of a United States of Socialist Europe.’81
The WIL was making a serious attempt to shift the programme of the People’s Convention from a vague, classless populism towards revolutionary Marxism, using the assembly to present its politics to a large number of active trade unionists and left wingers.
This was obviously unacceptable to the Stalinists. However, at this juncture, they were unable simply to denounce the WIL’s amendments and additions as ‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyism’, so more devious measures had to be employed to keep the Trotskyists’ proposals out of sight. The first proposal was written off with the explanation ‘that this Convention is aimed towards the establishment of a People’s Government which will control the armed forces of the state’,82 which ignored the central issue of the immediate fight for proletarian control over the arming of the workers. The second proposal was countered by the statement that ‘the People’s Movement has grown out of the opposition to the truce which the labour movement has entered into with the ruling class and has the strongest objection to the continuation of such a truce’.83 This ignored the question of making demands upon the Labour Party leadership, to which I shall return. The Stalinists then answered the third proposal with terms which may have been correct, but which once again evaded the main issue raised by the WIL, that of a working class approach as opposed to the Convention programme’s populism: ‘... it is the first business of the working class in each country to endeavour to organise for struggle against their own capitalist class. It is the intention that messages of solidarity shall be sent to all workers and those who support them in the fight for peace in the Fascist countries, and such messages of solidarity will be effective only to the degree that we ourselves are doing our duty in our own country.’84
The fact that the Stalinists were obliged to deal with the WIL’s proposed amendments and additions, rather than just ignore them, demonstrates that they were in a politically vulnerable position, and also that when faced with opponents who were able to pinpoint their weaknesses, could neither deal with such criticisms nor convincingly defend their own policies.
Whatever its stage-managed organisation and its overt populism, the People’s Convention did cause the ruling class and its labour lieutenants some consternation. As the Convention drew near the Cabinet seriously considered outlawing the Communist Party. The Labour Party bureaucracy expelled party members associated with the People’s Convention, and waged a fierce campaign against it. Nine days after the Convention was held, the Daily Worker was banned.85 Some of the celebrities who had supported the Convention found themselves on the BBC blacklist, and were barred from making wireless broadcasts.
In some respects the WIL was rather dismissive of the whole affair. It poked fun at the ‘Bohemian celebrities’ paraded at it, and considered that the delegates represented around 10 per cent of the 1.2 million people claimed. Two thousand workers at Napier’s engine factory and 400 workers at de Havilland’s aeroplane works were reported to have claimed that they had not been consulted on the whole affair, and repudiated their ‘delegates’ to the Convention. Around one half to two thirds of the delegates, it was said, were members or supporters of the Communist Party, and most workers were ‘completely indifferent’.86 But: ‘However, it is a fact that large numbers of the most militant sections of the workers in trade unions and factories, especially those actually members or supporters of the Communist Party, looked to the Convention as an expression of an alternative to the present coalition government waging the war for imperialist aims.’87 The WIL considered that the People’s Convention represented ‘the worst features of both opportunism and adventurism’. It separated ‘the best, most self-sacrificing courageous and militant workers’ from the main body of the workers, who continued to support the Labour Party and the war. On the other hand, it was argued, that once the mass of workers started to respond to the betrayals of the labour movement leaders, there was a danger that due to the lack of any alternative they could be ‘rallied round the class collaborationist programme of Popular Frontism’.88
The dangers of Popular Frontism was real enough (and not only in the future, as was suggested) even if at the time it was couched in left wing phrases. But the references to the Stalinists’ ‘adventurism’ were enigmatic. There was a tendency for Communist Party members to downplay their politics during this period, and concentrate upon the effects of the war upon living standards and working conditions, rather than raise the question of the war itself.89 Besides, any left winger engaging in militant activity or indeed propaganda work during the war was in danger of being isolated from the broad mass of the working class, and the Trotskyists themselves were certainly willing to run the risk of isolation and worse in their ardent support of the class struggle.
Dealing with the Labour Party
Much of the criticism made by the Trotskyists of the People’s Convention centred around the stance which it and its parent body adopted towards the Labour Party. During the Popular Front period the Communist Party took an ambiguous attitude towards the Labour Party, even saying that it could play a progressive rôle.90 The anti-war turn of the Communist International in 1939 necessitated a harder stand against Social Democracy, and in Britain the Communist Party became more critical of the Labour Party, the leadership of which, of course, gave full support to Britain’s war effort. Dimitrov spelled out the new line of the Communist International. Unity with Social Democratic parties was ‘no longer thinkable’, and working class unity could only be achieved from below, ‘in a resolute struggle against the treacherous principal leaders of the Social Democratic parties’.91
The Communist Party was vague when it came to outlining the actual composition of the People’s Government which it hoped would emerge from the People’s Convention movement: ‘The People’s Government must be drawn mainly from the labour movement if it is to be truly representative of the people, and it must draw its authority and strength from the support which the labour movement gives it.’92 The Convention’s resolution shed no light on this important question, but it did imply that the leadership of the Labour Party would be welcome in the People’s Government if it broke the wartime political truce, and was ‘to end the policy of collaboration between the Labour Party leadership and the ruling class’.93 In May 1941 Adams and Squance wrote on behalf of the People’s Convention a letter to MPs of all parties, calling for ‘an effective parliamentary opposition which will come out boldly in the interests of the people’: ‘There is a growing feeling in the country that the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party should insist upon their leaders leaving the Coalition and taking their place with all those who are striving for a new policy, a real defence of the people against their enemies at home and abroad.’94
Thus from a position in November 1939 — demanded by the Communist International, no less — rejecting as unthinkable all joint work with and support for the leaders of Social Democracy, the Communist Party by May 1941 was writing to all MPs, calling on the leadership of the Labour Party, those very people whom we were so recently told were intent on transforming the British labour movement into a Hitlerite Arbeitsfront, to help form an official parliamentary opposition around the populist demands of the People’s Convention.
After some 20 months of silence on this issue, the outline of a new Popular Front government was at last being presented. Seeing that this move towards a rapprochement with the leadership of the Labour Party coincided with a shift inside the Communist Party towards defencism, one can ponder over the course which the Communist Party would have taken had the German invasion of the Soviet Union not occurred within the next few weeks...
The Trotskyists attacked the vagueness of the Stalinists’ propaganda on the Labour Party, and counterposed to it comprehensive programmes of demands. These were intended to key into the day-to-day experiences of workers both in and out of uniform in order for them, through fighting for such demands, to recognise that the solution to the problems they were encountering could only be solved through the fight for state power.
The WIL considered that the approach of the Communist Party and its People’s Convention was quite unable to break the working class away from its existing class collaborationist leadership; ‘mere verbal denunciations’ being quite insufficient.95 It added that the defencist sentiments of the mass of the working class could not be satisfactorily addressed by the Stalinists, and that the workers would not be won over ‘by the sterile repetition of the Marxian axiom that only the Socialist revolution can solve the problems of the working class’.96 The call for a People’s Government held no attraction, the masses could only be won over by the demand that the Labour Party break from the Coalition government and, basically, put its money where its mouth was: ‘But taking the Labour leaders at their word, the demand they take power in order to prove their genuineness in their vociferous desire to “fight Nazism and Fascism to the end” can heighten the consciousness of the workers as to the real treacherous rôle of the Labour leaders.’ Demands included the arming of workers under their own control and the election of officers by the soldiers, the expropriation of industry, the banks and land under workers’ control, the freedom of India and the colonies, and a Socialist appeal to the workers of Germany and Europe for a revolutionary struggle against Hitler.97 This, we were told, would bring the class issues to the fore, and the lead the mass of the workers to realise that the crisis could only be solved by the seizure of power by the working class.
In late 1940 the RSL issued a detailed programme in opposition to that of the People’s Convention, posing it as ‘the choice between the revolutionary road to Socialism and catastrophic defeat’.98 It called for the defence of living standards, working conditions and welfare services, repeal of all anti-working class legislation, full rights for those in the armed forces, freedom for the colonies, and for shifting the cost of the war from the working class onto the bourgeoisie. It concluded:
‘The advocacy of the foregoing demands must always be accompanied by the agitation for a third Labour government and the demand that the Labour leaders should break with the ruling class. We demand that the Labour Party conference should be convened to instruct its representatives in the government to withdraw. We demand that the whole labour movement be mobilised in the struggle for a third Labour government to put into operation the above demands.’99
The demands were not posed as ‘an end in themselves’, but as ‘a bridge between the reformist workers and the revolutionary Socialist group’. The Labour leaders would not fight for such demands, but:
‘The workers themselves must learn this fact from their own experiences. The demand that the Labour leaders should break with the capitalist class and take power into their own hands puts them on the spot before the very eyes of the entire working class. Their failure to satisfy the most elementary demands of the masses is a more convincing proof than any theoretical abstraction of their political bankruptcy. Our participation in this struggle gives us the opportunity of winning the leadership of the working class.’100
‘What God Hath Joined Let No Man Tear Asunder’
Many of the prognoses made by the Trotskyists were proved correct when on 22 June 1941 German troops invaded the Soviet Union. After a week or two of confusion and hesitation,101 a Political Letter from Pollitt to all Communist Party members put things straight.
The old anti-war line, correct as it may have been, was now deemed obsolete. Now there were only those who were for the defeat of Hitler and those who ‘openly or covertly’ were endeavouring ‘to sabotage the achievement of the victory of the British and Soviet people over Hitler’, and he called for ‘the establishment of a united national front’ of everyone who was for Hitler’s defeat: ‘... in supporting the Churchill government we do it whole-heartedly without any reservations, without harping on the disagreements of the past, or raising the fundamental differences between the Communist Party and other political parties.’ There was to be no ‘putting forward impossible demands’, no ‘irresponsible fighting of by-elections’, and the Communist Party hurriedly withdrew from a by-election in Govan and subsequently obeyed the wartime electoral truce. And there certainly was to be no ‘long-drawn-out historical explanations’ of how and why the sudden change of heart had come about. Members who dared to speculate on how long the Churchill-Stalin alliance would last, or if it was a mere ruse on the part of the British ruling class, represented ‘defeatism in its worst possible form’.102
This new turn had profound implications. Within weeks the Communist Party descended into outright class collaboration, with every statement being in stark contrast to those which the party had issued before July 1941. Dutt summarised the new orientation:
‘The speediest victory of Britain and Britain’s allies over Hitler is not the special interest of one class or section of the nation, but the common interest of all classes and sections of the nation... This collaboration of all sections of the nation, of normally opposed classes, parties and organisations, constitutes the united national front for the defeat of Hitler. It finds expression in the united endeavour of the national war effort. In industry it finds expression in the cooperation of employers, management and workers for maximum war production. In the political field it finds expression in the cooperation of parties in parliament and in elections, and in the support of a coalition government of national unity, based at present on the Conservative, Liberal and Labour Parties. The government has received national support as the representative of national unity.’103
As far as the Stalinists were concerned, the working class no longer had any independent interests. Class divisions were all but transcended as the Communist Party now treated the interests of the working class as synonymous with those of the ruling class. The Communist Party became a de facto agent of British capitalism as it used its not inconsiderable industrial apparatus to force more produce and profits out of the workers on behalf of Churchill and his class.
Unlike the Stalinists, the Trotskyists were neither surprised nor disoriented by the German invasion of the Soviet Union and its consequences. We have seen that they understood that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact could not guarantee the safety of the Soviet Union, and that the Stalinists’ stance towards the war was completely conditional upon whatever the orientation of Soviet foreign policy happened to be at any particular juncture, and that it would change in correspondence with it. The Trotskyists considered that an alliance with the democratic imperialists could not guarantee the safety of the Soviet Union, and that once Hitler had been dealt with, they would turn against the Soviet Union. They were also in no doubt of the domestic consequences of the Stalinists’ new turn. Within days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and as the Stalinists dithered, the WIL’s paper declared:
‘The Communist Party leaders of this country will inevitably, at the orders of Stalin and Molotov, throw themselves at the mercy of the capitalists. They will discover that the war has suddenly been transformed into a just and righteous one. Any criticism, any assertion that the workers must take power out of the hands of Churchill and his gang and wage a genuine revolutionary war to aid the Soviet Union will be denounced as sabotage of aid to the Soviet Union.’ 104
Ted Grant added with considerable accuracy that the Stalinists would ‘sabotage the struggles of the workers... with the treacherous cry that they would help Hitler’. He also recognised that the nationalist appeal of Stalin and his entourage, invoking the spirit of 1812 and so on, would play into Hitler’s hands, but this was not accidental as the Soviet bureaucracy would be undermining its own position if it was to rouse the masses under the slogans of revolutionary internationalism.105
The next issue of Socialist Appeal took a look at Pollitt’s letter, and declared that the Communist Party had ‘completely capitulated to the ruling class in Britain’. It rubbished Pollitt’s idea that Churchill’s anti-working class statements and actions were ‘insignificant things of past history’, and as for Pollitt’s call for the Stalinists to set an example: ‘It means that the Communist Party militants must act as the bosses’ agents in imposing speed-up and all the other impositions on the shoulders of the workers.’ Moreover: ‘To support Churchill means to act as strike-breakers for the bosses and help to impose a reactionary regime in Britain.’ It was not, as the Stalinists claimed, that they were using Churchill. No: ‘The Communist Party leadership is putting the party into the service of the ruling class.’106
The Trotskyists in Britain were clearly correct to have subjected the official Communist movement to an extensive and vigorous critique. Although the Communist Party of Great Britain was a fairly small organisation compared to many other Stalinist parties, it was, nonetheless, the representative in Britain of an international movement that was seen by many militants as embodying the traditions of the October Revolution.
Although a decade or so of violent political gyrations and constant attempts to justify the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy had justifiably given the Communist Party a bad reputation, it still recruited to its ranks many thousands of class-conscious workers, who as union representatives and community activists won the allegiance of thousands more. Members and supporters of the Communist Party were involved in activities which required considerable tenacity and courage. And even if the Stalinists did discredit themselves by their risible volte-face at the start of the war, their absurd behaviour over the Finnish Winter War, and their sinister pro-German propaganda during the Phoney War, evidence suggests that their party did maintain its numbers through the anti-war period, and was holding onto and attracting serious people at this time, who could be attracted towards revolutionary politics.
The results of the polemic with the Stalinists was, however, uneven. The membership of the WIL, about 50 at the outbreak of the war, had grown to about 350 by the time the Revolutionary Communist Party was formed in 1944, with the WIL providing the RCP with the bulk of its members. Most of the WIL’s recruits were from a working class background, and many of them were won from the Communist Party after June 1941, when the bankruptcy of the Stalinists could be exposed by the WIL through its energetic participation in the class struggle.
The RSL, on the other hand, was wracked by factional disputes, and its membership fell from 170 in 1938 to a mere 23 in 1943. It was, therefore, in no real position to profit from its propaganda, and it declined as the WIL developed. And whilst a correct analysis of Stalinism was essential for the development of a revolutionary organisation, the formally correct critique of Stalinism that the RSL promoted could not prevent its terminal decline. The refusal of the RSL to work as an independent political organisation, and its concentration upon entry work within the Labour Party, did not help the group’s fortunes. The Labour Party became to a large extent an empty shell during the war years, as many of its active members were working long hours in industry, or were in the forces. Moreover, the traditional concentration of the Labour Party upon electoral affairs robbed it of much of its usual activities whilst the wartime political truce was in operation. The RSL further isolated itself when it refused to give critical support to Stalinist-backed anti-war candidates who stood against the Labour Party in by-elections. The WIL was correct to give them critical support as the occasion of a candidate opposing the wartime coalition on an anti-war platform gave it the chance to promote revolutionary politics, as well as to criticise the inadequacies of the Stalinists’ politics.
Both the WIL and the various factions of the RSL called for the election of a Labour government, although their slogans differed slightly. United front work, entrism and critical support for Social Democracy are tactical manoeuvres which cannot be considered as eternal measures, applicable at all times and for all situations. Their use must be predicated upon a thorough investigation of the balance of forces within the labour movement. Lenin based the tactics of the Communist International towards Social Democracy upon the existence of a proletarian vanguard already won to Communism which could demonstrate in practice to the remainder of the class still under the influence of reformism the bankruptcy of its reformist leadership. Trotsky emphasised that the united front tactic was intended for sizeable Communist parties to engage larger reformist organisations in joint action for the same purpose of winning over the membership of the latter. Trotsky’s tactics in the 1930s were intended to attract to revolutionary politics the leftward-moving centrist currents then emerging within reformist parties, and to ensure that small groups of revolutionaries did not isolate themselves from the working class during times of a general radicalisation.
Did any of these conditions exist in Britain in the period of 1939-41? Did the references to fighting for a Labour government have much relevance at this juncture? Certainly, the small size of the Trotskyist groups precluded any form of united front work with the Labour Party. Nevertheless, the size and prominence of the People’s Convention, however much the numbers of people and organisations represented at it were exaggerated, could well have made it possible for demands to have been placed upon the leaderships of the trade unions and the Labour Party, and thus put them on the spot. The WIL was, therefore, acting correctly in attempting to intervene in the discussion around the Convention, and trying to replace the populism of its programme with a Marxist approach.
Whilst the Communist Party did oppose the imperialist war, its propaganda, with the partial exception of the manifesto of June 1941, was extremely vague, and contained no practical proposals beyond the vacuous call for a ‘People’s Government’ which would bring about a ‘people’s peace’, and evaded the awkward question as to whether it accepted Lenin’s revolutionary defeatist tactics. The Trotskyists had to address concrete issues which the war threw up, if they were to defeat the Stalinists politically, and win over militants.
The leadership and the Left Fraction of the RSL were both wrong in rejecting the Proletarian Military Policy. The RSL leadership’s straight restatement of Lenin’s defeatist tactics of the First World War, and the Left Fraction’s vulgar distortions of it, meant that however much they were able to present a programme that could pose the defence of the workers against the austerity and anti-democratic measures of the British ruling class, they were unable to address the genuine fears of workers in Britain about the consequences of a German invasion. The effect of this was to leave the way open for the social patriots in the labour movement leadership, who were adept at diverting the anti-Fascist sentiments of the working class into support for the war. The Proletarian Military Policy was intended to serve as a transitional strategy, to key into the anti-Fascist sentiments of the workers, and turn them in an anti-capitalist direction. In Britain that meant posing the need for the defence of the democratic rights and the organisations of the working class against attacks either from the British ruling class or a German invasion, through the fight for state power.
If the direct restatement of Lenin’s defeatism represented mere abstentionism in respect of a German invasion (as did the Stalinists’ evasions), the danger with the Proletarian Military Policy was that it could tend towards defencism, and a minority in the WIL considered that the propaganda of the group was biased in that direction, judging correctly that the majority of the group was attempting to aim at the mass of the working class, rather than at its most advanced sections. Nevertheless, the Proletarian Military Policy was a correct strategy in the democratic imperialist states, and those who adopted it in a correct manner stood a far better chance of attracting active workers to revolutionary politics than those who eschewed it in favour of restatements of tactics from the First World War. It certainly was better than the vague propaganda of the Communist Party on this issue.
1. I wish to thank John Archer, the late Sam Bornstein, Monty Johnstone, the late Sam Levy, John McIlroy, Brian Pearce, Al Richardson and Ernie Rogers for providing me with advice, details and documents.
2. G Dimitrov, ‘The Soviet Union and the Working Classes of the Capitalist Countries’, Selected Articles and Speeches, London, 1951, pp184-5.
3. H Pollitt, ‘Economic Security, Peace and Democracy’, For Peace and Plenty: Report of the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, London, 1938, p55, my emphasis.
4. Ibid, p37.
5. International Press Correspondence, 2 April 1938.
6. Daily Worker, 30 March 1939. The Stalinists had already called for a Liberal vote in the Bridgwater and Aylesbury by-elections in 1938, and later that year they touted the ‘anti-appeasement’ Tory, the Duchess of Atholl, in another by-election.
7. JR Campbell, Questions and Answers on Communism, London, 1938, pp46-7.
8. J Campbell, ‘The Trotskyist Danger’, For Peace and Plenty, op cit, p95.
9. S Jackson, Peace Alliance: The Road to War, MLL pamphlet, nd [probably 1938].
10. In 1937 CLR James recognised that a Popular Front government would enable the bourgeoisie to mobilise support for war considerably more easily than it would under a right wing administration (CLR James, World Revolution, New Jersey, 1994, pp399-400).
11. Fight, July 1937.
12. Militant, April 1938.
13. H Pollitt, How To Win the War, London, 1939, p3.
14. JV Stalin, ‘Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU(B)’, Works, Volume 14, London, 1978, pp364, 365, 372.
15. Workers International News, April 1939.
16. A fortnight before the pact was signed, Campbell said that there could ‘be no rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the Fascist states’ (Daily Worker, 9 August 1939).
17. World News and Views, 2 September 1939.
18. Challenge, 2 September 1939.
19. Militant, September 1939.
20. ‘Labour cannot form a government that can win this war on its own. My personal opinion is that you can’t win this war unless you have in the new government not only representatives of Labour, but men like Lloyd George, Eden, Churchill and Duff Cooper — all imperialists. But we have to win this war and to win it with people who are going to be ruthless.’ (Cited in J Mahon, Harry Pollitt: a Biography, London, 1976, p251)
21. Many of the Central Committee members confessed to having doubts about the new line, but they accepted or at least tolerated it because of a strong and often pathetic trust in the Soviet Union, together with the realisation that a break from it would lead to a major political crisis in the party.
22. Both Pollitt and Campbell later admitted that they never agreed with the anti-war line. Cf Mahon, op cit, pp253-4, and J Attfield and S Williams, 1939: The Communist Party and the War, London, 1984, p44.
23. LD Trotsky, ‘A Fresh Lesson’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York, 1974, p71.
24. Daily Worker, 7 October 1939.
25. RP Dutt, Why This War?, Communist Party pamphlet, November 1939, p31.
26. Workers International News, October 1939.
27. ‘Defend the Soviet Union’, flyer inserted in Workers International News, December 1939. Cf the Revolutionary Workers League’s ‘An Open Letter to Members of the Communist Party’, nd [ca October 1939]. Dutt’s pamphlet bears this out: ‘They [Communists] always made clear that the Peace Front, to be effective, and to be genuinely based on the principles for which alone the workers could support it, must include the Socialist Soviet Union; and that any alliance which excluded the Soviet Union would not represent the Peace Front, but only an imperialist combination for a balance-of-power war. Had the Peace Front been formed, and had it nevertheless been compelled to take up arms against aggression, the Communists would have supported every sacrifice in such a just war.’ (Dutt, op cit, p12) In other words, should the Soviet Union enter the war, the Stalinists would once again support the war; just how the mere involvement of the Soviet Union would transform an imperialist conflict into a ‘just’ war was not — and never would be — explained.
28. ‘... the Soviet Union has immeasurably strengthened itself since the signing of that pact, from the Baltic to the Balkans. It is hardly likely that Hitler will again don the mantle of the Crusader against Bolshevism even to please Chamberlain.’ (World News and Views, 14 October 1939) The next issue reckoned that the pact had ‘eliminated the danger of war between Germany and the Soviet Union’ (World News and Views, 21 October 1939).
29. Militant, September 1939.
30. Dutt, op cit, pp15, 18.
31. Daily Worker, 1 February 1940. Note that what Dutt had called a Soviet peace offer was now described as what it really was — a Soviet-German offer. This editorial was lifted straight from Pravda of 26 January 1940, cf A Rossi, The Russo-German Alliance, London, 1950, p82.
32. Workers Fight, May 1940.
33. S Jackson, Workers Against the War, MLL pamphlet, nd, p13. The WIL commented that ‘the CP is, as it always has been since the change-over, in support of Hitler’s peace terms’ (Workers Diary, 11 February 1940).
34. The RWL said that ‘the logical conclusion from this is that the Nazis are fighting for a just cause and that all supporters of the Moscow-Berlin alliance... should help to finish off the Allies’ (Workers Fight, Mid-February 1940). Appeals were made by Stalinists in France, Belgium and the Netherlands to the occupying German authorities for their papers to be legally published, and they actually succeeded in gaining permission for their Dutch paper to appear.
35. National Council of Labour Statement, 7 December 1939, Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1940, p13.
36. ‘Defend the Soviet Union’, op cit.
37. Militant, 9 December 1939.
38. Workers Diary, 10 February 1940. The MLL made much the same point, cf Militant, 2 February 1940.
39. There was serious discussion within the top echelons of the French military at this time about bombing the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus.
40. Attfield and Williams, op cit, pp104-5.
41. H Pelling, The British Communist Party, London, 1975, p118.
42. N Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941, London, 1985, p271.
43. K Morgan, Against Fascism and War: Ruptures and Continuities in British Communist Politics 1935-41, Manchester, 1989, p317.
44. JR Strachan, The War Crisis, WIL pamphlet, nd [late 1939].
45. Workers International News, October 1939.
47. RWL, Internal Bulletin, nd [ca October 1939].
48. This over-optimistic attitude was not confined to the British Trotskyists. The leading Trotskyist journal in the USA stated that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had ‘destroyed the remaining parties of the Communist International’, and that their organisational break-up was certain (New International, September 1939). Trotsky was no less certain: ‘The only “merit” of the German-Soviet Pact is that in unveiling the truth, it broke the backbone of the Comintern. From all countries, particularly from France and the United States, come testimonies of a sharp crisis in the ranks of the Comintern, of departures of the imperialist patriots on the one hand, and of the internationalists on the other. No force in the world can stop this decomposition.’ (LD Trotsky, ‘The German-Soviet Alliance’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, New York, 1977, p82)
49. Workers Fight, Mid-February 1940.
50. J Haston, A Step Towards Capitulation, WIL Internal Bulletin, 21 March 1940. In a discussion with Trotsky in June 1940, the US Trotskyist leader James P Cannon said that the US Stalinists were still strong, with a powerful trade union apparatus, and they had only lost the ‘democrats’: ‘The old militants are more devoted than ever. They believe that the party now has the “real revolutionary” line.’ (LD Trotsky, ‘Discussions With Trotsky’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, op cit, pp259-60)
51. Labour Monthly, October 1939. Was it ignorance or mendacity that led the Stalinists to accuse the Trotskyists of ‘trying to harness the discontent in the [labour] movement’ in order to remove Chamberlain and enable Labour to join the wartime government (Daily Worker, 29 April 1940), or to equate Trotsky’s call during the First World War for a United States of Europe with Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism (Labour Monthly, December 1940)?
52. Daily Worker, 23 August 1940.
53. For example, a leader from Izvestia, commemorating the anniversary of Lenin’s death, translated in World News and Views, 1 February 1941, talked of Stalin’s victory over ‘the Trotskyist-Bukharinite bandits — the vanguard of the frenzied counter-revolutionary capitalists’, carefully omitting the allegations made against them at the 1938 Moscow Trial, that they were agents of Hitler.
54. World News and Views, 15 March 1941, 31 May 1941.
55. World News and Views, 17 August 1940. Frölich, of course, was not a Trotskyist.
56. Conversations with John Archer, Sam Bornstein, Sam Levy and Ernie Rogers.
57. Militant, 15 February 1940.
58. Workers International News, March 1940. It appears that Gerry Healy, at that time in the WIL, had helped canvass for Pollitt in the Silvertown by-election in February 1940 (cf D Harber, ‘The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard’, Against Old Foes With New Faces (RSL internal document), nd.
59. By saying that the MLL/RSL worked almost exclusively within the Labour Party, I mean that it did not present itself as an independent organisation outside the Labour Party. Its members and supporters were certainly active in trade unions.
60. Daily Worker, 22 June 1940.
62. Workers International News, August 1940.
65. The Bulletin, September 1940.
66. This is the view of Monty Johnstone, who has consulted both the Moscow archives and those of the British Communist Party. He surmises that the French party’s declaration was wired to London in time for it to appear in the Daily Worker on 21 June. Cf M Johnstone, ‘The CPGB, the Comintern and the War 1939-1941: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know’, undated paper.
67. A Political Bureau circular was issued to party branches on 15 July 1940 claiming that there were ‘tendencies to national defencism’ within the party. See Branson, op cit, p290. Johnstone sees both the manifesto and its withdrawal as evidence of a faction fight in the party leadership, with Pollitt winning the first round, and Dutt the second.
68. Looking back in January 1941 at mid-1940, George Orwell said that ‘what amounted to a revolutionary situation existed in England, though there was no one to take advantage of it’. He adds that the Communist Party could not gain working class support for its ‘definitely pro-Hitler policy’, and the Stalinists ‘had to pipe down during the desperate days in the summer’ (G Orwell, ‘London Letter to Partisan Review’, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 2, Harmondsworth, 1984, pp67, 69). Orwell often combined shrewd general observations with inaccurate statements about political organisations.
69. Workers International News, August 1940.
70. The WIL did not recognise the relevance of the fall of France as a factor in the adoption of the June manifesto, yet it claimed — quite incorrectly — that the Daily Worker had adopted ‘a conciliatory tone to the trade union and Labour leaders’ and was pushing ‘a refurbished Popular Front line’, and concluded that it was ‘only a step to the recrudescence of the jingo-Communism of the pre-war years’ (Workers International News, June 1940).
71. Attfield and Williams, op cit, pp128, 141, and D Hyde, I Believed, London, 1952, p111.
72. The Bulletin, September 1940.
73. Daily Worker, 9 July 1940.
74. World News and Views, 5 October 1940, my emphasis.
75. Morgan notes that the People’s Convention was publicly supported by ‘individuals of disparate views from all walks of life: engineers, railwaymen, academics, clergymen, pacifists, disenchanted supporters of the Conservative and Liberal Parties and, of course, Labour activists and Communists’, not to mention bandleaders, composers, actors, writers, a ‘well known wrestler’ and a bloke who could ‘do anything with a piano accordion’ (Morgan, op cit, pp209-10).
76. World News and Views, 5 October 1940.
77. The People Speak, nd [ca January 1941]. This was the official account of the Convention.
78. Workers International News, December 1940.
80. Ibid. The RSL also linked the programme of the Convention with the requirements of Soviet diplomacy: ‘The failure of the manifesto to define either the nature of the war or the composition of the government the people can trust is not accidental. The real aim of the Stalinists is not a government the British workers can trust but a government the Soviet bureaucracy can trust, and Stalin has not yet indicated that he would be prepared to trust any government which British imperialism would be likely to tolerate. Last year  the Stalinists put their money on Churchill and Co, two years ago on the Labour leaders... The hesitations and perplexities of the British Stalinists reflect those of the Soviet foreign office.’ (The Bulletin, November 1940)
81. The People Speak, op cit, p61.
84. Ibid. Two other amendments calling for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union and the nationalisation of industries without compensation were dealt with in much the same manner.
85. The Trotskyists came to the defence of the Daily Worker, and the Stalinists had to admit that the NUR and Labour Party branches in Southall, where the WIL was known to have some influence, condemned the ban ‘while not agreeing with the policy of the Daily Worker’ (Industrial and General Information, 4 March 1941).
86. Workers International News, February 1941. Dave Granick, a WIL member and an engineering union shop steward, said that in union meetings ‘much of the discussion... was on the People’s Convention’, and most of the members ‘were quite bored with it’ (Interview with Sam Bornstein, August 1976).
87. Workers International News, February 1941. In private, Haston was a lot less dismissive: ‘Here were assembled over 2000 people, the overwhelming bulk of whom were anti-war proletarian leaders in their particular districts and organisations. These workers had assembled together to discuss ways and means of struggling against their own capitalist class — their main enemy at home.’ (J Haston, A Step Towards Capitulation, op cit)
88. Workers International News, February 1941.
89. This is well argued by Morgan, op cit, pp122-52.
90. Cf H Pollitt, ‘The Way Forward’, It Can Be Done: Report of the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, London, 1937, p75.
91. World News and Views, 11 November 1939. The Stalinists showed utter confusion over the Labour Party. The delegates to the 1940 Labour Party conference were holding ‘the future of the British working class movement in their hands’ (Daily Worker, 10 May 1940). Yet within days Page Arnot saw the history of the Labour Party as a long process of adaptation to monopoly capitalism, ‘the last stage’ of which ‘would be well understood if it was called “National Socialism”’ (Labour Monthly, June 1940). Just how the votes of the delegates at the Labour Party conference could possibly have prevented the consummation of this sorry process is a little hard to understand.
92. World News and Views, 7 December 1940, my emphasis.
93. The People Speak, op cit, p57.
94. World News and Views, 10 May 1941.
95. Workers International News, December 1940.
96. Workers International News, February 1941.
97. Workers International News, June 1941.
98. The Bulletin, November 1940.
101. The Communist Party’s statement issued on the day of the invasion still declared that ‘we can have no confidence in the present government, dominated by Tory friends of Fascism and coalition Labour leaders, who have already shown their stand by their consistent anti-Soviet slander campaigns’ (World News and Views, 28 June 1941).
102. H Pollitt, Political Letter, 8 July 1941, cited in V Gollancz, Russia and Ourselves, London, 1941, pp119ff.
103. RP Dutt, Britain in the World Front, London, 1942, p197.
104. Socialist Appeal, July 1941.
106. Socialist Appeal, August 1941.